Identity formation, fashion, and ‘becoming’ a leader.

Leaders (like everyone) are constantly in a state of ‘becoming’ – forming and reforming their identities. We know that the process of identity development is an ongoing one influenced by internal and external forces – changes in formal roles or duties might serve as an example of a changing external force.

What role, then, does fashion and wardrobe play in this process of identity formation?

One theoretical tool for studying and understanding fashion is described in Changing Fashion: A Critical Introduction to Trend Analysis and Meaning. Fred Davis’s work on the intersections between behaviour and fashion is an interesting way to think through our project.

The idea goes that people construct social identities for themselves. Identities, argued Davis, are built by a series of decisions by people and group identities evolve collectively over time.

Dress, fashion, and wardrobes serve an important role in communicating identities and people outside of those groups do generally read those identities markers correctly (e.g., you aren’t wearing a suit to go to work as a lifesaver at a pool).

Davis discussed the way changes in circumstances influence our identities and, in turn, the way we form and communicate these identities and identity shifts through our fashion and wardrobe choices.

External and internal shifts do undergo constant negotiation and renegotiation. Davis suggested that some of this work is done collectively by groups and that group fashion norms or markers are changed by external factors over time.

This makes me wonder about collective groups of school leaded and the way wardrobe markers might change or evolve depending on context.

To my understanding – acknowledging the generalisations I’m about to make – we can potentially see markers of different leadership roles.

Preliminary data from our study [more here] hint at differences in the leadership wardrobes of teaching principals as compared with principals who don’t hold teaching duties. It seems to be suggested that executive principals can suit up, whereas teaching principals are more likely to be teaching, sport, school maintenance, etc. I wrote briefly about my own experiences of this here.

English principals or head teachers as a group seem to be more ‘suited and booted’ (a phrase I picked up from Pat) than Australians are on the whole. As an example, I was in the UK in October when the Head Teachers marched on Downing Street.

In a stark marker of identity difference, I turned up to the march in an act of solidarity in the clothes I was wearing when I heard about the protest – jeans, converse, a cardigan (my own academic ‘workday’ uniform of sorts). I was immediately struck by the fact that I was wildly underdressed…. to the point where I was contemplating leaving in case I was lowering the general tone.

There were 3-piece suits and umbrellas, heels, chunky jewellery, and impeccable grooming as far as the eye could see. I do still find myself having fashion faux-pas cringe when I think about it. It was later discussed on twitter that this was an active collective decision so that the media would focus on the message – the markers the group was giving were intentional and considered. They were also reported on specifically – “Hundreds of head teachers – the men in smart suits, the women in business wear – came to Westminster to make their point about school funding in England.”

So. I find myself wondering what we’ll find out about the markers of collective group wardrobe for participants in our study – how it might be shared or vary across contexts, jobs, roles.

What are the markers of your wardrobes on a shared level? An individual level? Collectively? We’d love to hear your insights and experiences here….

And we welcome guest posts! Check out this recent one from Lacey Austin.


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